Here is my contribution to this month's "Amazing Traveling Fantasy Round Table" on the topic of
I think we Homo sapiens have been discussing what being human is and means since we developed abstract language and probably before that. At first, the driving motivation was undoubtedly how to tell what is us and not-us. This is certainly a biological imperative at the cellular level; our immune systems must tackle the question every day, attacking foreign substances like viruses, bacteria, and allergenic proteins, and it’s also why cancer is so insidious (cells with the right molecular passwords that nonetheless behave like ravening barbarians). The same distinctions hold true at the level of the individual, family/clan, and larger, political units. Whether we’re talking about communities or nations, “us” = “human” = friendly, safe, cooperative, reliable, and “them” = “something else” = dangerous, untrustworthy, competitors for limited resources. In this way, “human” tends to be exclusionary and frictions tend to narrow the scope even further.
In science fiction and fantasy, however, we tend to use the term in a inclusionary way. Often the words “human” and “person” are interchangeable. Sf/f writers and readers pioneered the suggestions that all sapient races think of themselves as people and therefore, “human,” whatever the biological differences from Homo sapiens. I had a lot of fun with a race of giant slugs in Jaydium, who insisted that mammals were incapable of “personness.” The television series Star Trek often portrayed what Earth-humans and alien-humans have in common, rather than their unbridgeable differences. (The similarities were undoubtedly caused in part by the relatively primitive makeup and special effects, leading to the joke about aliens being actors with funny foreheads.) The creators of the series also exploited the romantic appeal of the exotic to generate love stories between members of different species, a phenomenon highly unlikely to occur in nature but one that had the effect of demonstrating the shared values of sapient beings. This is an example of broadening of the use of “human” as a term to include any beings of similar intelligence and culture that we can understand and sympathize with.
The inversion of the broadening effect comes up most commonly in horror: beings that look and sound human but which lack some trait or motivation we consider so important as to be a necessary part of the definition of human: empathy, for example, or the capacity for love. A prime example of this is the vampire, who “walks among us” as if human but differs in his essential nature. The horrific aspect arises in part from his blood thirst, but even more from the betrayal of the assumption of shared humanity.
None of this addresses the question of what it is it we feel defines human as opposed to intelligent-animal, a question not restricted to writers of speculative fiction. We can look at the biological characteristics of Homo sapiens, such as opposable thumbs or a greatly developed prefrontal cortex (the region responsible for complex moral judgments and control of social behavior, among other things). We can look at behavioral traits like language, prolonged rearing of young and care for the aged, the use of fire and cooking, tool-making, and the like. But in this larger universe we live in, is it wise to judge another entity as human or nonhuman based solely on what they look like or how they act? Is a child born with crippling, distorting defects or an adult with a deforming disease not still human? What about a person who has suffered a debilitating stroke and can no longer communicate? These and many other, similar questions highlight the difficulty of defining human by observable characteristics.
Instead, we can look to experiential qualities: the capacity for love, for wonder, for kindness; the awareness of personal mortality and the “binding” of time through personal and generational transmission of memory; abstract thought, and so forth. It may well be that animals have some of these abilities but lack the means (or perhaps the inclination!) to communicate them to us. We know, for example, that many species exhibit behavior we interpret as grief, loyalty, and self-sacrifice.
Certainly, cooperation is not limited to Homo sapiens, and tool-usage definitely is not. So instead of emphasizing how we are different from other creatures in our world, we can focus instead on how wonderful it is that the things we value in ourselves are not exclusive to our species. Or, contrariwise, that humanity is not limited to humans.